Can Jimmie Ward Bounce Back at Free Safety?

Image Credit: Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group

Every San Francisco 49er fan agreed on one thing going into the new league year, the team had to sign a new free safety, preferably Earl Thomas. That didn’t happen, and recent comments from head coach Kyle Shanahan say that the re-signed Jimmie Ward is slated to start at FS in 2019. Now, is this a smokescreen for drafting a FS in the draft? Maybe, but there is not a huge reason to bring back Ward on a one year prove-it deal if the team isn’t going to give him a chance to prove himself.

With this in mind, what can the 49ers expect from Ward at fs in their improved defense? It’s hard to say without knowing who the team is planning on adding with the number two pick in the draft, but looking back at Ward’s history over the last five years on the team, it doesn’t look good.

Ward’s best season in the NFL was his second season, 2015, when PFF graded him at 72.3. Why is this a bad thing? This was a season in which he played the slot corner position exclusively. The next year he played outside cornerback, before moving back to his college and rookie position in 2017, free safety. He played seven games before going on the injured reserve list after Week 8, but 2017 was his lowest graded season of his career, next to his rookie year at 54.2.

In 2018, Ward played slot cornerback, outside cornerback, and free safety. The four games that he played free safety (weeks 8-10, and 12) he received grades of 54.9, 68.3, 62.9, and 64.1 respectively. His coverage grades were lower all around, throughout his entire career. Ward has never been known as a ball hawking centerfielder type of safety. The one part of the game of football where he really excels is tackling. He rarely misses a tackle, and does a good job of lowering his base before contact, but a defensive coordinator isn’t hoping that his single high safety is making lots of key tackles, as he is often the final man before open field.

PFF grades aren’t the end-all of deciding factors, and Ward has been well spoken of and well liked by all four coaching staffs he has played for. They have all stuck with him, including the current John Lynch-Shanahan combination. Statistically speaking, his career has also been less than spectacular, with two interceptions five years. He has also produced two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. These are not numbers that strike fear into anyone. Combine that with the fact that quarterbacks score a 123.1 passer rating when targeting players he is defending, and the front office should understand fans’ concerns over the free safety position.

The fact that he came back on a one-year deal means there was probably not a large market for him in free agency, so he should be motivated, as this might be his last chance to earn a long-term deal in the NFL. Maybe Shanahan, Lynch and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh believe that with their perceived improved pass rush and cornerback play, Ward can shine at safety. His history suggests that fans should hope to see a free safety drafted come April.

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